Major to allow opted-out schools to select pupils

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John Major yesterday took the first steps towards his goal of persuading all schools to opt-out by announcing that grant-maintained schools will be free to select children.

The Prime Minister, who was speaking to grant-maintained school heads in Birmingham, also said that parental ballots for church schools that wished to opt-out would be abolished.

He spoke of his determination to push forward the Conservative "revolution" in education while building an alliance with teachers who have born the brunt of the changes.

Grant-maintained school heads doubted whether the measures to allow them to borrow against their assets and to cut down paperwork were enough to revive the Government's flagging policy.

And teachers, while pleased with his promise of support in dealing with disruptive pupils, were angered by the news that inspectors will in future give the names of good and bad teachers to heads. At present, inspectors criticise whole departments, not individuals.

Mr Major repeated that education was at the top of his agenda. "A broad education is not the property of a limited social elite. I believe it is the birthright of every small bewildered child that walks into school with a shining morning face."

He maintained that opted-out schools were an important part of raising standards and singled out church schools as the first group to be allowed to opt-out simply by a vote of the governors and without consulting parents.

"Grant-maintained status is the logical choice for many church schools. Their governing bodies already employ staff and have extensive responsibility for premises," he said. Only 131 of the 4,860 church schools have opted- out.

Under plans to be finalised, opted-out schools will still have to get permission from the Department for Education to select pupils, but a department source said the process would now be "streamlined" and "flexible".

A Downing Street source said the change meant accepting that many comprehensives already practise selection.

Mr Major also asked opted-out schools to consider setting up special units for disruptive pupils.

Dan Sinclair, head of Castle Primary School in Wiltshire, said there was "a slight air of desperation" about the speech and that the abolition of parental ballots was "very dangerous - you must carry parents with you".

Geoffrey Duncan, secretary of the Church of England's Board of Education, said the board would consider whether to modify its cautious advice to church schools but would not do anything to drive a wedge between them and other schools.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said Mr Major had failed to offer a real vision of how to lift standards: "He is at odds with Education Secretary Gillian Shephard who has already indicated that she believes his plans for compulsory opt-outs will not be implemented."

Mr Major also announced plans to use inspectors to raise standards. Inspections were changing, he said. "Too often in the past, inspections were the occasion for foisting a particular progressive dogma on teachers ... It would be easy now to swing completely the other way. I think that would be wrong. Done well, group work, even topic work, have their place. But so too do whole-class teaching, and hard-edged single subject teaching from seven- or eight-years old onwards."